Now that children born when the N64 came out are getting their driver’s licenses, it may come as no shock that Atari, the venerable creator of Pong and the Atari 2600, has filed for bankruptcy. The golden age of arcade games was typified by Atari’s sleek graphics and junkie-level, one-more-time-I-swear addictions. Few games exemplified this more than Tempest, a little-remembered trope on rail shooters like Galaga or 1942. With little storyline, you play as one shape shooting other shapes before they climb up the big shape and destroy your shape. Easily one of the trippier experiences offered at the time, the game quickly becomes infuriatingly fast-paced, forcing your palms to sweat gallons. Tempest is available to play here.
The tank-battle adventure Battlezone offered one of the closest approximations to 3D graphics one could get in 1980 (the old arcade cabinet even featured goggles you stuck your face into for VR-style gameplay). The player drove a tank around a mountainous landscape, finding enemy tanks to destroy for points. Battlezone today looks like a cheesy action movie’s approximation of what a military computer simulation might look like. However, the gameplay itself was a quiet, contemplative experience when compared to the thumb-breakers of the time. Battlezone is available to play here.
3. Haunted House
In what is easily the first entry in the now-flooded market of survival-horror games, the player must wander around a mansion and collect the three missing parts to the late owner’s urn. The game has the most simplistic of graphics (the player is shown as just a pair of eyes and the only difference between the four floors is the color of the walls) but can be very frightening in its own right. The only items are the parts to the urn, a staff to fight enemies (consisting of a bat, a spider, and the ghost of the mansion’s owner), and a key to open doors. The trick? You can only carry one item at a time. This dynamic creates a fantastic puzzle of logic which changes every time you reload it from its surprise ending. Haunted House is available for play here.
This maddening maze game for the Atari 2600 could easily be called a predecessor to games like the original Legend of Zelda, with its top-down graphics, seamed world entry, and basic item mechanic. The graphics are the epitome of the era, considering the playable character is a single green square. However, much like Haunted House, just finding your way around this world can be frustrating enough for such a seemingly childish game. Adventure can be played here.
5. Crystal Castles
While Namco’s Pac-Man was king of cabinets, Crystal Castles may seem like a fairly cheap knockoff. One controls Bentley Bear and must collect the gems before any variety of monster does. The twist? The levels are far more varied than any version of that floppy-mouthed yellow disk and include hidden hallways to meander around Escher-esque buildings. Saying Crystal Castles stole from Pac-Man is sort of like saying Halo stole from Goldeneye 007. The game is fairly lengthy, with 10 levels and four sublevels each, but it’s addictive and familiar mechanic helps it into the canon.
6. Lunar Lander
In what is easily the most difficult game on this list, you must land a spaceship with limited fuel on a platform amongst a rocky moonscape. While that may sound easy, the platforms are often no bigger than the ship itself and it controls like the Queen Mary through a marsh. While I wasn’t around to experience Lunar Lander in the arcade, it’s easy to see how any number of college savings funds went through its coin slots. Lunar Lander is available to play here.
Somewhere between Asteroids and Starfox lies Gravitar. Controlling a similar ship from the far-more famous Asteroids, Gravitar throws ships, turrets, warring planets, and space monsters from all corners, all while you try to maneuver the hair trigger of a thruster.and short-range pea shooter. The game feels like a later era, where massive feats are put before the smallest protagonist, especially as the game’s map dwarfs your craft behind neon graphics and quick volleys of returning fire. Gravitar is available to play here.
Bonus: E.T. The Extraterrestial
The licensed game released to promote the blockbuster Spielberg film is widely regarded as one of the biggest boondoggles in the history of the industry. Although it was one of the best-selling games in the history of the 2600, the number left unsold was in the neighborhood of 3 million, meaning a massive financial loss for Atari (it’s also said to have been the bellwether for the Crash of ‘83). In fact, Atari posted a nearly $536 million loss for 1982, and at the end had to split-up and sell most of its console business to a young company named Commodore. It wasn’t until the Nintendo Entertainment System came along that anyone would have faith in home consoles. Perhaps most famously, the millions of unsold cartridges are rumored to be buried in a landfill in the New Mexico desert, though Atari executives have denied this for years. The gameplay is based largely on ET and Elliot seeking out parts to a phone–so he can “phone home.” Get it?! Like he says in the movie! The controls are disastrous, the points system seems very arbitrary, and the enemies are damn near pointless. For the self-hating, ET can be played here.